Over two and a half years since launch, the PlayStation Vita is still searching for its own Monster Hunter. To give a little context, Capcom’s co-op focused role-playing series has developed into somewhat of a powerhouse over the past decade, its latest instalment – Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate – topping two million sales in Japan alone. Leading the charts for the fourth week in a row, over the past seven days Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate has outsold both the new Super Smash Bros. and Youkai Watch 2 three-to-one. Impressive stats to say the least.
It’s no wonder, then, that Sony and its stable of developers have been desperately trying to recreate the series’ success. Though, in truth, there are Monster Hunter games available for the PlayStation Vita, these have either been re-releases or digital versions of the PSP classics. Needless to say, it’s been a dark time for veteran fans of the series. After all, Monster Hunter was born and raised on PlayStation systems before making a sudden and dramatic leap to Nintendo platforms.
The reason behind Capcom’s complete change in direction still remans a mystery. However, despite the publisher’s silence on the matter, many have suggested that Sony’s reluctance to localise the series outside of Japan paved the way for Nintendo to step in and bag itself such a lucrative IP. Whether true or not, the outcome remains the same and, thanks to Monster Hunter’s presence, the 3DS has continued to reign over the kingdom of handheld gaming.
In that time, there been plenty of imitators. In fact, ever since Monster Hunter first started to gain popularity, other studios have attempted to create their own spin on its unique gameplay formula. From straight up rip-offs such as Hunter Blade to obscure homages like Lord of Arcana, there are plenty knocking around, though none have come close to matching Monster Hunter’s sales figures. Part of the reason is that, much like Pokemon, Call of Duty, or Mario, the franchise has become its own institution within the gaming world. If you pick up a copy of the new Monster Hunter, even after years of having last played one, you know exactly what you’re getting; it’s that sort of familiarity that underpins the success of any huge game series.
Still, there have been a handful of Vita titles that have come close to the mark, at least in terms of quality, if not commercial success. First up, of course, we have Soul Sacrifice. Helmed by acclaimed video game designer and Mega Man creator, Keiji Inafune, the game was announced soon after the Vita’s launch, showing that Sony wasn’t afraid of going head-to-head with its lead competitor.
From the brief snippets of footage that trickled out we saw plainly what Inafune and the team at Marvelous AQL were going for – a darker, grittier Monster Hunter with emphasis on blood-soaked battles and dark magic. At launch the game performed well, netting moderate sales and an all-round positive media reception. It wasn’t long before Sony announced that a revised version of the game was in the works, Soul Sacrifice Delta having launched earlier this year.
Another contender that arrived in 2014, was Toukiden: Age of Demons. Developed by Omega Force, in truth it wasn’t publisher Tecmo KOEI’s first punt at a Monster Hunter-style game. Way back in 2009, they launched Dynasty Warriors Strikeforce for the PSP, later releasing it on both PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. In a nutshell, Strikeforce took the hack n’ slash gameplay the Dynasty Warriors franchise is renowned for, combining it with huge boss fights and a renewed focus on character progression. Though the end product was somewhat of a mixed bag, it served as a foundation for what would later become Toukiden.
Despite its immediate similarities to Monster Hunter, for some reason Toukiden felt remarkably fresh. In essence, all the game really did was swap out monsters for demons, but seeing a different developer’s take on the series’ fundamentals proved an interesting and entertaining experience, with combat that felt lighter and more akin to the Warriors franchise. Omega Force also tried to work in its own class system thanks to the presence of Mitamas – spirits that imbue your character with up to four unique abilities, replacing Monster Hunter’s somewhat complex item system.
Breaking away from the realm of dark fantasy and demon-slaying, we have Freedom Wars, Sony’s latest first party hit looking to dethrone Monster Hunter. Compared to both Soul Sacrifice, Toukiden, and other games like God Eater, Freedom Wars doesn’t try to directly emulate what makes Capcom’s series so successful. Though there is clearly a focus on character progression and huge boss fights, Freedom Wars dresses these core tenets differently.
First off, there’s the game’s actual setting. Instead of luscious grassy planes, deserts, and snowy mountains, in Freedom Wars players must tackle a barren network of run-down urban sectors while being constantly surveyed by the omnipresent Panopticon. Each battle brings with it new rewards though many of these are stripped away, leaving players with just enough to get by. Progression in Freedom Wars doesn’t equate to a badass-looking weapon or shiny new armour, instead its embodied by Entitlements – access rights that need to be unlocked by completing missions.
The way Freedom Wars handles combat is also largely different. Aside from being able to equip guns, thereby allowing for some third person shooter action, each player also carries a Thorn. This unique device is somewhat of a multi-tool, serving as a grappling hook as well as a supportive/offensive device, imbuing players with special abilities that can affect how a team performs.
Though all stellar in their own respects, none of the three above have successfully managed to topple Monster Hunter, and with good reason. Looking at where the series is now, it has changed very little since that first instalment all those years ago. However, what Capcom has done well is ensuring a constant wave of sequels, revisions and ports, continually boosting awareness and making Monster Hunter available to a wider audience. With both Soul Sacrifice and Toukiden having already been re-released (at least in Japan), Sony and Tecmo KOEI seem to have picked up on this and hopefully, somewhere down the line, these series will become a genuine threat, pushing the genre to a new level.